The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 2, 2010

Jo Ellis: Help line offers advice on gardening

By Jo Ellis

CARTHAGE, Mo. — Every year it’s the same thing. Did we plant the garden too soon? Will we get an April windstorm, gully washer or late freeze?

Gardening experts advise not planting until at least 10 days after the last average freeze date in your planting zone (except for cool-weather plants such as peas, spinach and lettuce). Around here, that’s between April 1 and 15. Others say don’t plant until the ground temperature has warmed to above 50 degrees for several days. Still others won’t plant seedlings until around Mother’s Day.

I’m impatient. I planted our two raised beds about two weeks ago, and a tiny patch of lettuce and onions before that. Raw spinach makes my allergy-prone husband’s tongue look like a relief map of the Grand Canyon, but I still planted a small row for me.

The strong winds we had last week were not conducive to growing tender transplants, but I’m hoping they had enough time to establish some strong roots before the winds sucked every bit of moisture out of them. We did our best to keep them watered.

One of the best sources I’ve found for good local gardening advice is the Master Gardeners help line at the Missouri University Extension Service. The help line is operated by volunteers who have completed the 30-hour Master Gardener course under the supervision of Jasper County’s Extension agents, Ed Browning and Janet LaFon.

The help line is open between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from April 12 through Aug. 15.

LaFon said that even if you have been gardening for years, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask questions.

“We can’t carry it all around in our heads, any of us,” she said. “The volunteers have well-documented sources from which to gather research-based information.”

She said people can call the help line (417-358-2158) or visit the office in the basement of the courthouse and talk with a volunteer face to face.

If the volunteers don’t have an immediate answer, they will do their best to solve the problem, call you back or send you to one of the hundreds of Extension Service publications related to the topic.

As Master Gardeners, they want to learn, too, and they enjoy helping people. If you are a do-it-yourself type and have Internet access, go to and click on the “lawn and garden” link, and you won’t have to leave the house.

Browning said most questions relate to identification of an insect, disease or invasive weeds affecting plants, and gardeners often bring in samples so the volunteers will know exactly what they are dealing with. Other questions include lawn renovation, how and when to fertilize, and reading soil tests.

“Many are doing first-time gardens this year,” Browning said. “They see it as a way to save money, to get better quality produce, and a piece of that is getting organic produce rather than using pesticides.

“They want to know when to plant, how much to plant, whether to plant heirloom or hybrid varieties. Heirlooms have better flavor but are more susceptible to diseases, while hybrids produce a more substantial crop and earlier crops in a short period of time.”

Even with our relatively accurate 10-day forecasts, the vagaries of weather can still affect our best gardening efforts. So many factors are involved: the temperature at which seeds germinate, the hardiness of the plants, the temperature at which they do best, and the length of time to maturity.

Corn, for example, can be seeded if the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees, but it sprouts much faster (in four to five days) if the temperature is around 78.

But as I said, I’m impatient. So every year, I run this race to pick that first red, ripe tomato no later than July 4. Who can celebrate Independence Day without a fresh tomato from the garden? So I take chances and hope for the best; surely one of those 30 transplants will produce a winner.